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Blues Before Sunrise

Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews

Steve Cushing
Foreword by Jim OʹNeal
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Blues Before Sunrise
    Book Description:

    This collection assembles the best interviews from Steve Cushing's long-running radio program Blues Before Sunrise, the nationally syndicated, award-winning program focusing on vintage blues and R&B. As both an observer and performer, Cushing has been involved with the blues scene in Chicago for decades. His candid, colorful interviews with prominent blues players, producers, and deejays reveal the behind-the-scenes world of the formative years of recorded blues. Many of these oral histories detail the careers of lesser-known but greatly influential blues performers and promoters._x000B__x000B_The book focuses in particular on pre-World War II blues singers, performers active in 1950s Chicago, and nonperformers who contributed to the early blues world. Interviewees include Alberta Hunter, one of the earliest African American singers to transition from Chicago's Bronzeville nightlife to the international spotlight, and Ralph Bass, one of the greatest R&B producers of his era. Blues expert, writer, record producer, and cofounder of Living Blues Magazine Jim O'Neal provides the book's foreword.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09093-6
    Subjects: Music, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)

    The story of the blues is one that we historians have discussed, documented, and analyzed for decades. But the story that Steve Cushing presents inBlues Before Sunriseis that all too rare account that can be told only by the people who lived the blues and told most genuinely in their own words, in language of the blues. For an art form that also serves as an oral history of a culture in song, what better way could there be to get a people’s perspective on the blues?

    One of the key components of a compelling story can be...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    Blues Before Sunrisewas first broadcast in June 1980. For the first ten years it was a local-only program broadcast on WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago. In 1990 the program went into national syndication and today is heard on seventy-five stations across the nation. The focus of this award-winning program is on the first fifty years of recorded blues, starting with the very first blues record, “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith, recorded in 1920. When historians and musicologists refer to blues as “America’s root music,” it’s the blues recorded during this period to which they refer. These recordings...


    • Yank Rachell
      (pp. 3-17)

      The mandolin is a rare instrument in the world of blues. Throughout the entire history of this music there have been only a handful of blues mandolinists of note. Yank Rachell and Charlie McCoy were the preeminent mandolinists during the prewar years, and Johnny Young was the lone postwar blues mandolinist. The mandolin remains popular in bluegrass and old-timey music, but has reached a virtual dead end in blues.

      Pete Crawford made this interview with blues mandolinist Yank Rachell possible. Pete had formed one of those symbiotic relationships that many aspiring young white players had with veteran black bluesmen in...

    • Jesse Thomas
      (pp. 18-35)

      Jesse Thomas was one of about half a dozen prewar blues singers I had the opportunity to interview as they appeared at the University of Chicagoʹs famed Folk Fest. The resident blues expert on the festival selection committee was David Waldman, who over the years did a wonderful job of ferreting out the best of the surviving prewar blues singers. Among the other old-timers that Dave recruited to appear in the fest were Grey Ghost, Jack Owens, Mose Vinson, R. L. Burnside, George McCoy, and Lavada Durst. Iʹd come out to see them perform at the festival and at its...

    • Alberta Hunter
      (pp. 36-51)

      The classic blues singers were the women who pioneered blues recording starting with the very first blues record by Mamie Smith in 1920 and continuing on to 1930 when the Great Depression finally caught up with the recording industry. During this decade there were 260 different women who made blues records. Some, like Bessie Smith (160 records) and Ma Rainey (90-plus) recorded extensively while others made only a single record or a single side of a record. Not only did these women pioneer blues recording, getting into the recording studios at least four years before the first male blues singer,...

    • Grey Ghost
      (pp. 52-68)

      R. T. Williams, known to blues fans as the Grey Ghost, was among the last of the itinerant Texas blues pianists. For more than three decades these pianists hoboed from town to town, juke joint to barrelhouse in prewar Texas. They seldom settled in any one place, hitchhiking and hopping trains to get from destination to destination. In the glory days of their genre there were scores—perhaps hundreds—of roaming pianists displaying every level of talent and technique. Ironically, with all the players traveling and performing, only a lucky few managed to make records: Rob Cooper, Andy Boy, Dusky...


    • John and Grace Brim
      (pp. 71-90)

      John and Grace Brim, a husband-and-wife team, were the king and queen of the Gary, Indiana, blues scene. John was renowned for a pair of sessions organized by blues harmonica virtuoso Little Walter. Walter arranged for these sessions to take place and accompanied with his own band. The tunes recorded at these sessions—ʺIce Cream Man,ʺ ʺRattlesnake,ʺ ʺBe Careful,ʺ and ʺYou Got Me Where You Want Meʺ—rock and lope along as first-rank classics of postwar Chicago blues, fueled by Walterʹs high-octane harp and Fred Belowʹs drums. These recordings are held in rightful regard by blues fans worldwide.

      But itʹs...

    • Jody Williams
      (pp. 91-122)

      As a teenager in the 1950s Jody Williams was a highly regarded guitar player. During his time on the Chicago blues scene he made a series of classic recordings under his own name, played and recorded with Howlinʹ Wolf, and is heard on records by a variety of artists in postwar Chicago.

      Jody Williams is a unique individual in the world of blues. In the early 1960s, when blues was eclipsed as a commercially viable music by rock ʹnʹ roll and soul music, Jody, alone it seems, saw the handwriting on the wall. He put the guitar in its case,...

    • Rev. Johnny Williams
      (pp. 123-141)

      Since the very inception of blues music there has been deep conflict between the world of blues and the black church. Regardless of denomination, African American religion has little if any tolerance for blues and the people who play blues. Itʹs regarded as the devilʹs music and a practice in defiance of God. African American clergy in particular are adamant in this position. The chasm is deep and wide and itʹs real.

      This is ironic because most blues players start their lives and their musical journey in the church and later cross into the world of blues. They donʹt regard...

    • Little Hudson
      (pp. 142-154)

      Hudson Shower, aka Little Hudson, was a guitar player and vocalist who in the early 1950s recorded a handful of highly regarded blues sides for Joe Brownʹs J.O.B. label. His recordings of ʺRough Treatmentʺ and ʺLooking for a Womanʺ were classics of the era. Hudson was active on the Chicago club scene for many years—both before and after his J.O.B. sessions—but he never had another record. Perhaps there were just too many aspiring artists on the scene for Hudson to capture the attention of the major labels, or perhaps it was the changing style in blues or the...


    • Tommy Brown
      (pp. 157-189)

      The Atlanta blues and R & B scene was small almost to the point of non-existence—Titus Turner, Billy Wright, and Tommy Brown, plus throw in disc jockey Zenas Sears at pioneering R & B radio station WTES. Ironic, then, that a scene with such a limited cast should exert such a tremendous impact on pop music. Zenas Sears was one of a handful of trailblazing disc jockey/star makers, among the first hosts who broadcast blues on the radio and brought R & B of the late 1940s and early 1950s to the postwar generation. Billy Wright, a dynamic vocalist and quietly gay...

    • Ralph Bass
      (pp. 190-211)

      Ralph Bass was a famous record producer and A & R (artists and repertoire) man in the world of blues and rhythm and blues. Heʹs credited with discovering James Brown and Little Esther Phillips. He produced a gigantic hit record by tenor sax man Jack McVea with ʺOpen the Door, Richard.ʺ He worked with Etta James and Little Milton, produced the comedy records by Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham, and was responsible for a variety of respected jazz sessions, including the classic recording ʺThe Chaseʺ with Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. Over the years Ralph worked at the Black & White label,...

    • Cadillac Baby
      (pp. 212-227)

      Narvel Eatmon was known to blues fans around the world as Cadillac Baby. He was the owner and operator of Cadillac Babyʹs Show Lounge, one of Chicagoʹs premier blues clubs of the 1950s, and the owner and operator of the Bea & Baby record label, which issued records by Eddie Boyd, Sunnyland Slim, L. C. McKinley, and many others.

      By the time I met Cadillac Baby all the good times had passed him by. The club and the record label were both long gone, and he was operating a neighborhood candy store, Aladdinʹs Cavern, at 4405 South State—directly across the...

    • Richard Stamz
      (pp. 228-240)

      ʺOpen the Doorʺ Richard Stamz was one of Chicagoʹs most popular black radio hosts in the years from 1951 to 1961, billing himself as the ʺCrown Prince of Soul.ʺ However, as a white kid who grew up in the suburbs listening to Top 40 rock ʹnʹ roll radio, I had no idea who Richard Stamz was. It was the production manager at our radio station, Claude Cunningham, who suggested that Richard might be an interesting person to interview, and that he knew how to get in touch with Richard if I was interested. Claude grew up in the Englewood District...

  9. Hosting Blues Before Sunrise
    (pp. 241-246)

    WhenBlues Before Sunrisefirst hit the air in June 1980, I didn’t know what to expect. The program covered several music genres from 1900 to about 1965. Some of it was pretty creaky stuff, way off the path of mainstream tastes. To my surprise, reaction to the program was positive. After a few months on the air I began to hear more and more andmorefrom the listeners. Jazz fans liked it. College kids liked it. But most surprising to me, the program was enthusiastically embraced by a large listening audience of African American seniors, from fifty to...

  10. Index
    (pp. 247-256)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-258)